Matthew McGraw - “Music as a career. Really?”

Matthew McGraw

Matthew McGraw is an American student about to enter his second year at the Leeds College of Music in the UK. 

 

While preparing for Luke Ledger'’s 1st year recital, I met a third year British student and bass player named Simon.

I asked Simon a simple question upon meeting him, one that surprised him and surprised myself in many ways. I asked him what he would do after graduation because generally where I’'m from, graduates will go on to teach elementary level music or get a “real” job that pays just enough for really dull work.

I guess I had an ignorant expectation of how Simon would respond to my question. Maybe he would work full-time at Tesco? Maybe at Greggs the Baker? Simon glared back at me as if I were some sort of idiot and replied: “"Well, I’'m going to play music and gig”."

He said this with such conviction and meaning that his words stuck with me. I mention this short story, because it is significant on many levels and illustrates the difference in mentality between students at Leeds College of Music and young American musicians quite well. Here is the other perspective, a dark and sinister perspective …plus what some would call a radical response.

Recently while at my job, I told a co-worker that I go to music school and that I would like to play music for a living. He laughed at me and said, "Good luck with that one".” I cringed a bit when he made that statement but I understand the mentality in the Philadelphia area. Many of the best musicians I have known growing up dropped music or did not seriously pursue a career in the field.

Playing music is viewed as a hobby instead of a lifestyle and also as risky business once high school is finished. There is a pervasive fear that there is no money in music, but I feel that there is… well-…enough money to live. I understand that the average Joe needs money to survive, but I believe that people over compensate their basic spending interests and invest in things that they do not need.

Many people in the US are making more money than they need to survive (do you really need those new shoes? Does little Robert need that smartphone?). They work 8.5 days to make money to buy things. The second verse of Billy Joel'’s Moving Out should illustrate my point…:

“Sergeant O'Leary is walkin' the beat,
At night he becomes a bartender.
He works at Mister Cacciatores,
Down on Sullivan Street,
Across from the medical center.
And he's tradin in his Chevy for,
A Cadillac ack ack ack ack ack.
You ought-a know by now,
If he can't drive with a broken back,
At least he can polish the fenders”

The lyrics describe a man working his “tail” off to buy a Cadillac, which he can'’t even enjoy because he is always too busy and tired. Americans enjoy or have no problem with this feeling of doing things they hate to ultimately get a new toy in the end or to pay for their large house.

If they are lucky, they will get two weeks of paid vacation for their work. Philadelphian culture and work-life are deep issues and my own experiences with them have left me bitter, but there is not enough time to delve into them properly, so let's carry on…... The point I am trying to make here is that the people I know in America generally do not like to take risks (they want safe guaranteed money).

The mindset in England is a whole different ballgameI like many things about being in England and going to Leeds College of music. I love that the students at my school find ways to make things happen. Students violently pursue and create their own gigs at various venues in the city in a sort of bizarre competition amongst themselves and they even naively try to steal the gigs of worthier professionals.

I really love this attitude! The students have a fearless hands-on approach and are determined to make things happen. Failure is not a concern in their minds.

Musicians at the school also have no problem in telling you that they don'’t like something. During my first year, it was baffling to hear certain students tell me that they did not like Duke Ellington or some of the other jazz masters. Again, I love this attitude! I feel that people have the right to like whatever they want musically.

There is a certain freedom which exists at the school. You feel that your tutors here will not try to take your soul from you and instead will nurture it so that you don't become some kind of jazzbot. There is a positive feeling at Leeds College of Music.

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